By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD — A Winnebago County judge on Friday delivered the final blow to the effort to save the former Catholic chancery building.
Judge Donna Honzel ruled that while the chancery has spurred a lot of emotions in the fight to save it from the wrecking ball, legal precedent does not allow a lawsuit against the city to advance.
The lawsuit, filed by the group Save Piety Hill and members of the Signal Hill Neighborhood Association, claimed Rockford aldermen did not follow their own ordinances when they voted against landmarking the 90-year-old long-vacant chancery building at 1243 N. Court St. Council’s vote overturned the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, which recommended in March to make the chancery a historic landmark.
The city argued that aldermen followed procedure and were not legally bound to follow the recommendation of the commission. Attorneys for the Diocese of Rockford intervened in the case and argued that the plaintiffs did not have legal standing to sue the city. Honzel agreed, ruling that the plaintiffs have no protectable right to use the property and did not suffer damages unique to those that may be suffered by the general public. Although the chancery is aesthetically pleasing to the plaintiffs, aesthetics, she said, are not enough to constitute standing.
“I am sure the chancery is a beautiful building,” Honzel said from the bench. “This court is bound by case law and must make its decision on collective precedent.”
Representatives from Save Piety Hill said they do not plan to appeal Friday’s decision, which means demolition may commence as soon as city officials lift the stop-work order issued earlier this month.
“We are very disappointed on multiple levels,” spokeswoman Carol Jambor-Smith said. “We are disappointed as historic preservationists that these buildings are no doubt going to be torn down and lost forever. I think the City of Rockford needs to take a moment and think about that. We are disappointed as a neighborhood grassroots organization that fought hard against an entity that has deep pockets. We are disappointed that we fought against the City of Rockford because we are neighbors and residents of the city.”
Jambor-Smith, former Third Ward Alderman, said Friday’s ruling removes the possibility of development in Signal Hill that adds to the vibrancy of a neighborhood that is experiencing vitalization.
Save Piety Hill, however, has filed an application to create a new historic district that would include the Cathedral of St. Peter campus that comprises the chancery, former convent and elementary school. City Legal Director Nick Meyer said while that application will not protect the chancery, it could offer reprieve for other properties eyed by preservationists.
“Any application that would come in after historic district designation would have to be accompanied by a certificate of appropriateness, but it doesn’t apply to permits that have already been issued,” Meyer said.
The city issued a permit to demolish the chancery on May 16, the day lawsuit was filed. A stop-work order was issued the next day, when code officials learned the contractor did not properly notify adjacent property owners. Judge Lisa Fabiano then issued a temporary restraining order that halted work for 10 more days. She later recused herself, sending the case across the hall to Honzel, who extended the order until after Friday’s hearing.
The diocese says it will also demolish the old convent but have not announced plans for the St. Peter’s school, which will close at the end of this academic year.